“Cyberstalking” Across State Lines Falls Under Federal Jurisdiction, Is Not Protected by First Amendment, Says Court

PersonalStorageDevices.agr.jpgA federal appellate court affirmed the verdict and sentence in a “cyberstalking” case, rejecting several constitutional challenges to the statute. United States v. Sayer, No. 12-2489, slip op. (1st Cir., May 2, 2014). The defendant argued on appeal that the statute, as applied, violated his First Amendment rights to free speech, and that it was overbroad and vague. The court’s ruling on the constitutional issues is an important piece of the developing body of laws regarding cybercrime.

According to the court’s account of the undisputed facts, the victim, identified as Jane Doe, dated the defendant in Maine for about two years before ending the relationship in January 2006. For more than four years afterwards, the defendant “persistently stalked and harassed Jane Doe,” id. at 2, causing her to obtain a protection order against him. His harassment moved to the Internet in 2008, when he began “to induce third parties to harass Jane Doe.” Id. at 3. This included posting intimate pictures of her to the “Casual Encounters” section of the classified-ad website Craigslist and responding to inquiries, which resulted in unknown men appearing at her home on several occasions.

Doe changed her name, moved from Maine to Louisiana, and began a new career in June 2009. She eventually learned that the defendant had continued to post pictures of her to pornographic websites, some of which included her address in Louisiana, and set up fake accounts in her name on Facebook and other social media sites. She also continued to receive visits from unfamiliar men who claimed they met her online. Police seized a laptop computer from the defendant’s residence in July 2010, which linked him to multiple fake social media profiles with explicit photos of Doe.

The defendant was indicted for one count of identity theft and one count under the cyberstalking statute, which prohibits the use of “any interactive computer service” to “harass, intimidate, or cause substantial emotional distress” to someone in another state.” 18 U.S.C. ยง 2261A(2)(A). He moved to dismiss the cyberstalking charge, arguing that the statute “imposes criminal sanctions on protected speech” in violation of the First Amendment, Sayer, slip op. at 7, and that it is unconstitutionally overbroad and vague. After the trial court denied that motion, the defendant entered a conditional guilty plea to cyberstalking, reserving the right to appeal the trial court’s order.

On appeal to the First Circuit, the defendant raised the same three constitutional objections. The court rejected the First Amendment argument as “meritless,” id. at 15, noting that the defendant did not deny that his conduct “put Jane Doe in danger and at risk of physical harm.” A criminal statute does not violate a defendant’s First Amendment rights, the court noted, merely because the conduct it prohibits involves speech. Giboney v. Empire Storage & Ice Co., 336 U.S. 490 (1949). The court held that “[s]peech integral to criminal conduct is…a long-established category of unprotected speech.” Sayers, slip op. at 16, quoting United States v. Stevens, 559 U.S. 460, 471 (2010). The court then held, essentially, that the defendant had not established standing to challenge the statute on the grounds of overbreadth and vagueness.

If you have been charged with an alleged criminal offense, you should consult with a knowledgeable and experienced criminal defense attorney in order to understand your rights and prepare the best possible defense. Michael J. Brown has represented west Texas defendants in criminal cases for more than 20 years. To schedule a confidential consultation to see how we can assist you, please contact us today online or at (432) 687-5157.

More Blog Posts:

Cyber Crime Investigations Often Assisted by Incorrect Use of Anonymizing Technology, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, June 11, 2014
Law Enforcement Cracks Down on New Area of Cybercrime: Alleged Online Extortionists Targeting Young Women and Minors, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, October 9, 2013
Teen’s False Statement on Facebook Results in Harassment Conviction, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, September 18, 2013
Photo credit: By –agr 15:53, 1 Apr 2005 (UTC) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.